Helping creatives navigate the obstacles of today's art world

Compassion is the greatest gentle strength. With that philosophy, Edinburgh-based artist Sarah Calmus has curated a new interdisciplinary project aimed at bringing creative people together to navigate the obstacles and challenges of today's art world.

S.O.S (Survival nOw Skills) combines print, spoken word and artists talks, supported by the National Lottery through our Visual Artist and Craft Makers Awards. Currently on show in the Society of Scottish Artists Annual Exhibition, we caught up with Sarah to find out more.

Sarah Calmus - S.O.S (Survival nOw Skills)

What was the inspiration behind your project?

I wanted to create an inclusive space to talk about the problems and issues that creative practitioners have, addressing the need for more honesty and conversation about how to survive in the arts.

To survive in the arts it’s crucial to reach out to others and discover that sense of solidarity. It’s really important to feel that you’re not isolated.- Sarah Calmus, Artist

Part of the reason I made this is because I was struggling, and many of the chats I’d had with other artists had been less about our practice and more about struggling with tax returns, getting paid or whatever.

To survive in the arts it’s crucial to reach out to others and discover that sense of solidarity. It’s really important to feel that you’re not isolated. Certain types of networking can put people off, but one of the benefits of getting involved in things like the Society of Scottish Artists, or Hidden Door arts festival which I also volunteer for, is that I’ve got to know people in a natural, unforced way – bonding with people who are interesting and influential and have lots of advice to give.

Sarah opening the Emergence Symposium at Hidden Door 2018 - Photo by Chris ScottSarah opening a symposium for emerging artists at Hidden Door 2018 (photo Chris Scott)

If we all reached out more we’d have a much stronger network as well as a better awareness of things like best practice, representation and diversity.

That’s what I wanted to achieve with this project. I wanted to create something useful. It’s actually still seen as quite a funny term to think about art being useful but I’ve looked at it as a sort of tool, an active work to bring people together.

Sarah Calmus installing the Zine Stand

How did you go about curating the contributions?

I invited several people to be contributors, from recent graduates such as Alix Rothnie, writer and curator at Deveron Arts, to former Edinburgh Makar Ron Butlin, ECA tutor Andy Summers as well as directors and organisers from various arts and events organisations.

Since graduating four years ago I’ve gotten to know these folk through work and my involvement in Hidden Door festival. I wanted to invite people whose work has inspired me, who actively create inclusive environments or are reaching out in one way or another.

The brief was to create something for the Zine; be it words of advice, resources, inspiration, anything that might be useful to the creative community. Their contribution could be anything and they were assured it wouldn’t be censored – I’m just surprised nobody swore!

SOS Zine images and quotes

What do you hope people will take from this?

S.O.S (Survival nOw Skills) is a celebration of solidarity, a pick-me-up and a tool to inspire, give hope and spread affirmation.

Creative practitioners will hopefully take some positive energy from it, provoking some interesting discussions to help empower and connect, and to promote openness and honesty. I hope it will help people see that they’re not alone and that there are useful resources for them to look into – things like SCAN’s Visual Arts Manifesto sit alongside poems, reflections, inspirational quotes and top tips.

I also hope it will provide some insight into the broad range of issues faced by artists and creative practitioners, building greater understanding of the arts world.

SOS Prints

Part of the project includes a talk exploring some of these issues?

Yes, this Thursday I’ll be hosting a panel of organisers, programmers and artists to explore the theme of surviving in the arts. All of the panel have worked in the arts in lots of different ways, and it’ll be quite an intense hour-long chat about endurance, wellbeing, fair pay, self-care and looking after each other – basically everything that’s needed for artists to have a better quality of life!

We’re hoping to record the session with Channel 7A so we can make it available online afterwards for those who can’t make it along.

How can people experience S.O.S?

It’s on display at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh until Thursday 17 January 2019.

After that I hope to distribute the Zine more widely and am looking for extra funding for an extra print run. There’s also an audio version for people who would rather listen to the work or maybe have difficulty reading for whatever reason – I’m going to make that publicly available online as a podcast alongside the artists talk.

Looking ahead, I hope to take a version of the work further afield with more artists talks, before building the work out more and developing the visual elements of the project, looking more into braille and embossing and Morse code... perhaps working some multimedia element to it, in some sort of installation set up in a solo exhibition in either Glasgow or Dundee.

People can buy the prints which would help to support the project and the production of more Zines. Also, for every print sold, a membership fee will be donated to Edinburgh Tool Library (who helped build the Zine stand in a collaboration between myself, Ben Craven and Marcus Gibson through their Tools for Life mentorship scheme). This will allow more people who may not be able to afford a spot to access their wonderful space.

Installing S.O.S (Survival nOw Skills)

The project is clearly the result of some fruitful collaborations!

It’s been wonderful to work with so many inspirational people and organisations, all bringing their wisdom, patience, joy and goodness to the project.

I've particularly benefited from learning a lot from Matt Martin - an emerging fellow graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone, currently based at Custom Lane, who helped design the Zine with me. His excellent design knowledge ensured the work was composed to a really strong aesthetic.

Bare Branding, a local open-access community hub for makers, helped teach me how to use their facilities – they were very kind and it was really helpful to my practice to learn a new technique.

The project was possible thanks to VACMA funding which supported the production of the Zine and prints as well as the contributors’ fees. It was really important to me when creating this project that I was able to pay everybody, so the majority of the funds have gone towards making sure everyone was paid.

S.O.S (Survival nOw Skills) features contributions from Briana Pegado, Alix Rothnie, Katy Koren, Bobby Sayers, Celie Byrne, Morvern Cunningham, Ron Butlin, Colin Greenslade, Chris Hellewell, Heather Marshall and Andy Summers, with additional support from Ben Craven, Marcus Gibson, Matt Martin, Noel Spencer and Agne Smilgaite.

It was supported by Creative Scotland and The City of Edinburgh Council through the Visual Artist and Craft Makers Awards (VACMA).

See more of Sarah's work at

About the Society of Scottish Artists Annual Exhibition

Open until Thursday 17 January 2019 at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, the Society of Scottish Artists Annual Exhibition features over 200 works from international and local artists, students and recent graduates, covering all media including installations, sculpture and video works. It includes a number of awards and free events. Find out more at


The Visual Artist and Craft Makers Awards (VACMA) are a programme of small grants schemes established by Creative Scotland in partnership with a range of local authorities and art agencies across Scotland. They support Scotland-based visual artists and craft makers at all stages of their career to develop their practice through new work, new skills or new opportunities.

This article was published on 09 Jan 2019